Part 5 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at

Aparigraha – not being acquisitive, non-grasping, overcoming possessiveness, non-greed (yama – Patanjali II.30 and II.39)

“Freedom from wanting unlocks the real purpose of existence.”  (Hartranft)

“When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.” (Satchidananda)

“One who perseveres on the path of non-covetousness gains deep understanding of the meaning of life.” (Bouanchard)

The last of the yamas seems subject to a variety of translations some of which are included here.  Most commentaries, however, seem to interpret this yama in relation to material possessions and turning away from the seeking and holding of such possessions.  In essence advocating a simple life with a lightness of attachment to ‘things’.

This seems like collectively sound advice for a society that is consuming global resources at a startling rate and at times looks like a population of lemmings heading for a crash.  Secondly, it seems like a good idea from the point of view of those of us who find ourselves on the ‘treadmill of stuff’.  This phrase refers to the difficulties that seem to arise when we embrace the gods of consumerism.  Examples might include the sense of frustration arising from doing a job you dislike in order to pay for the house/car/stuff you want.  Or the sense of ‘let down’, anti-climax, or ‘what next’ that sometimes occurs once we’ve finally obtain the longed-for object of our desire.

So far, so obvious perhaps, but I wonder if this yama goes further than simply a suggestion to curb our desire for ‘stuff’.

How does aparigraha relate to the acquisition of ideas, opinions, knowledge, experiences, love, respect, even the ability to ‘do’ a particular yoga asana?  Similarly, is there a difference between non-greed and self-denial?  Especially when self-denial is often bound up with deep seated feelings about ‘worthiness’ or ‘guilt’.

It seems possible that we can end up grasping after and holding on to patterns of behaviour that feed this sense of self denial.  We may even take hold of and cling to a kind of pride in our rejection of the cult of ‘stuff’.  All the while holding our beliefs, memories, mental and emotional experiences and even our sense of identity with an iron grip.  This sounds like a kind of ‘spiritual anorexia’.

Grasping too hard to the idea of non-consumerism, minimalism or even poverty in this way might itself, be seen as a form of possessiveness.  A strong attachment to a particular belief, being ‘right’ or ‘first’ or ‘liked’ all feel very similar to the urge to ‘own’, ‘possess’, ‘hold’.  They all have a strong flavour of ‘mine!’.

Given all this, perhaps aparigraha refers less to the enjoyment of an experience, thing, state or relationship, and more to our sense of holding it to be ‘mine’.  Of binding our sense of self or at the least our sense of contentment to ‘it’, whether ‘it’ is an ipad, a flapjack, a meeting with the Dalai Lama, a perfect handstand or anything else.

Some of our greatest role models in terms of spiritual awakening seemed to be passionate about having or getting something or other – Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Han (take your pick!).  Each could seen as ‘wanting’ a change of some kind.  Not a new ipad for sure, but alleviation of poverty, racial injustice, social independence etc.

Wanting things to be other than they are, seems admirable in some circumstances!  However, again, we come back to the ‘having and holding’ issue.  If I define my sense of contentment or worth in relation to a particular object, outcome, opinion, belief or experience, I open the doors to disappointment and deeper suffering.  I wonder, therefore, whether it is possible to hold a deep commitment to a principle, practice or path.  Yet not to let such a conviction cloud my ability to engage in the world joyfully or to stop me remaining open to others who do not share my views.  Perhaps this is where ‘turning the other cheek’ comes in!

Maybe this is where we begin to step out of the advice to cultivate non-possessiveness and into the fruit of such practice. This is referred to in II.39 and translated by Hartranft as ‘unlocking the purpose of existence’.  I’m not about to proclaim the meaning of life!  But I do wonder whether a growing sense of connection is at least part of a greater appreciation of life.  And from such a sense of connection compassion and a desire for moral justice may naturally arise.

In general terms, perhaps this wider interpretation of aparigraha might be summed up something like this:

“Keep it simple.  Greet whatever and whoever I meet.  Embrace that which seems wholesome, but not too tightly; and always be willing to let go and walk on.”

Coming next….Isvara pranidhana – ‘dedication to pure awareness’.